Civil servant who ran Stormont during powersharing collapse is knighted

The civil servant who found himself running Northern Ireland in the midst of Stormont’s powersharing crisis has been knighted for services to government.

David Sterling, who recently retired as the head of the NI Civil Service, said he sees the “humbling” honour as recognition of the whole organisation’s work during the turbulent three-year impasse without elected ministers in office.

The married 62-year-old said he hopes the achievements of colleagues amid the Stormont stand-off, and subsequently through the coronavirus pandemic, has challenged the narrative that the Civil Service is “broken”.

Mr Sterling, who insists he will not be using the formal title Sir David, said he never imagined that he would find himself in charge of public services in Northern Ireland.

“We were determined throughout that period that we would keep the lights on, we would keep the show on the road,” he told the PA news agency.

“But we wanted as far as we could to do more than just keep things ticking over.”

David Sterling was in charge of running public services during the Stormont impasse (Brian Lawless/PA)

The father of two, who was a civil servant for 42 years, added: “When I think back and look at the enormity of the challenge, it would have been overwhelming if I had known in early 2017 that it was going to last for over two and a half years.

“I think what made it easier to cope with was the fact that, certainly in the early days, the expectation was always that the executive was going to be back reasonably soon.”

That was not to prove the case as the political impasse between the DUP and Sinn Fein, which was triggered by a row over the botched renewable heat incentive (RHI) scheme but soon widened to encompass other disputes, drifted on and on.

It finally ended in January, when Stormont’s five main parties signed up to the New Decade, New Approach deal to restore powersharing.

Mr Sterling said one of the overriding emotions that marked his period at the helm was loneliness.

“It was quite lonely because you didn’t really have anybody to turn to,” he said.

“I joked that I was the only public servant in these islands who actually didn’t have anybody to report to.

“Nobody was telling me what to do, I wasn’t answerable to anybody.

“And that was just an unusual position for a civil servant to find themselves in.”

Ulster powersharing
Irish Foreign Affairs minister Simon Coveney (left) and former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Julian Smith unveil the New Decade, New Approach agreement (Niall Carson/PA)

The responsibilities also came with an unexpected public profile, as he found himself fronting press conferences and representing Northern Ireland at major events.

“I take the view generally that civil servants should be in the background working to support their ministers,” he said.

“And it should all be about delivering for the minister.

“But I certainly took the view, and indeed all my colleagues did, that in the absence of ministers we felt we had a public duty to be more visible and to be answerable for what we were doing.

“There were some humorous moments too.

“I remember going to my car one Saturday morning and a young postman walking up the driveway and saying ‘all right mate, still running the country?'”

Mr Sterling highlighted the effort to progress stalled legislation to compensate victims of historical institutional abuse as one of his proudest achievements in the ministerial vacuum.

“I think that was one of the most shameful things that occurred in the wake of the collapse of the institutions,” he said of the payment delay caused by the political implosion.

“I wasn’t prepared to just let the HIA report sit on the shelf until ministers came back into office.

“That was just one example of things that we felt we needed to progress going forward.”

The Open Championship 2019 – Day Four – Royal Portrush Golf Club
Mr Sterling cites the hosting of the Open Championship at Royal Portrush as one of his most memorable moments as head of the Civil Service (PA)

Seeing the Open Championship played at Royal Portrush last year also represented a significant moment, as it marked the culmination of his involvement in a long-term strategy to deliver big events to drive tourism growth.

Mr Sterling acknowledges the perception that the Civil Service is not fit for purpose has been perpetuated by the RHI inquiry, a probe that saw his own role in the flawed green energy scheme heavily scrutinised.

“The RHI report highlighted some major failings in the Civil Service,” he said.

“I was involved in that and my role has been set out very clearly in the inquiry report.

“I have said I deeply regret that.

“But I think sometimes it’s used to sort of characterise the Civil Service as a broken organisation.

“If we were a broken organisation, we wouldn’t have responded to the pandemic in the way in which we did.”

Renewable Heat Incentive inquiry
Mr Sterling says the inquiry into RHI boilers has perpetuated a narrative that the Civil Service is ‘broken’ – a perception he disagrees with (Liam McBurney/PA)

Mr Sterling believes the enormity of the Covid-19 crisis has fast-tracked the development of working relations between the parties in the resurrected executive.

But he does not underestimate the challenges ahead.

“I would be worried about the combined impact of Brexit, Covid and the risk of further austerity on this place, because I think we’re less well equipped to cope with the combined impact of those things than maybe other regions on these islands,” he said.

“But I would be optimistic that our people and our politicians can and will work together to take us forward.”

The retired civil service boss said he is “very honoured” at becoming a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath, but stressed that he has no intention of using his new title.

“I will still be David,” he said.

“It is a great honour but the idea of being Sir David sits slightly uncomfortably on my shoulders.

“So I’ll not be making a big deal of it.”

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